In this fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world we live in, super-achievers often find themselves at the top of the heap in their professions. They’re the ones who eat, breathe and sleep their jobs, race out of the house, briefcase and iPhone in hand, occasionally a quick kiss to the spouse and kid on the way out. They’re laser focused; often appearing completely in control and on top of the world. Whether it’s jabbering on two phones at once about the next business deal, sitting among mountains of legal documents with a triple espresso perched precariously on one of the piles or systematically attending to each of their 32 patients for the day, these are the folks I’m referring to. They’re probably very “successful” as our society would define it. And much of the time completely fried – burned on both ends. After all, how does any human being keep this pace and live to tell the tale?
As a therapist who has seen my fair share of these types of individuals, my experience has shown that there is eventually a toll on those who are driven in this way. Let me be sure to make the distinction between those who manage to balance a successful career and personal life and those who don’t. I’m speaking of the later because those are the ones who typically stumble through my door, bleary-eyed, wondering how they got to this point and seemingly unable to stop the train – or at least slow it down.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being successful – but if your relationships, physical and psychological health are being negatively impacted, you might benefit from considering a few life adjustments. The first question I challenge you to ask yourself:
“What’s driving me?”
I see so many people who are “driven” to succeed, in other words feel compelled to get to the top or if they’re already there – stay there. There are family of origin scenarios that can influence people to become “driven.” Sometimes a person has grown up in poverty and is “driven” to never be there again. Other times there was a very successful, often emotionally unavailable parent who had a strong influence. I’ve also seen people who suffered chaotic childhoods where excelling in school kept them away from trouble at home and/or they learned that their worth was based on what they did vs. who the were – a human “doing” vs. a human “being.” These patterns are often carried into adulthood and manifest as individuals who believe their value is more tied up in what they do vs. who they are.
Stress is the mind and body’s response to demands or pressures. The body launches into a physiological fight for survival which can include such physical symptoms as a racing heart, rise in blood pressure, faster breathing and quicker heart rate. It can give a burst of energy – which can be helpful to get things done like meet deadlines – but has adverse effects when this adaptive energy runs out. This is when exhaustion kicks in.
If the stress goes unrelieved, there can be a myriad of complications including depression, anxiety and high blood pressure. Relationships, emotional well-being and physical health all are at risk for being damaged. Highly stressed individuals often turned to substances, such as alcohol, to help relieve their stress.
Take a look at the following 5 stress management tools:
- Carve out “Me” Time: With all of the millions of things you have to do in your day, you must find a few moments to give to yourself. You need to be able to check out of the stressful situation, even if it’s for a few brief minutes. This allows you the opportunity to re-balance yourself. Activities you might try include a quick walk around the block or taking your lunch out to a bench, park or some place solitary to just “be” for a moment. If time is truly not available to even leave your office, close your office door for a few minutes, put your feet up on your desk and close your eyes.
- Take Belly Breaths: So many highly stressed people take shallow breaths, like a rabbit being chased by a predator. Fuller breaths allow more oxygen into your body. Some folks I’ve worked with have never experienced a full breath and can be surprised when they feel a little light headed at first. A good way to know if you’re getting the air all the way down there is to begin by trying it at night when you’re laying down in bed. Take in the air and make sure you see your belly expanding. For those who aren’t used to breathing like this, it takes practice. A good time to use this technique is when you feel yourself ramping up physiologically as proper breathing actually counteracts the physiological signs of “fight or flight.”
- Prioritize: We all know that there are only 24 hours a day. Why do some of us pretend like there are more? Make lists of the things that need to get down. Figure out your own system of prioritization of what needs to get done first. Honestly evaluate the list and identify the items that could wait a day or two. Highly stressed individuals often “spin out” more about the thought of all they have to do more than anything else.
- Talk About It: Stress can be improved by talking it out with someone you trust. If you’re like many professionals, a lot of their tension is around work. Is there a co-worker you can check in with periodically who will be able to relate to your situation? There’s a significant chance they’re experiencing some of the same stressors you are. Talking can relieve the build-up effect of stress.
- Challenge Your Thinking: This is probably the most important strategy to really elicit long-term change. Like I mentioned previously, many of us are “driven” to succeed. We have attached a certain meaning to “success.” Is it rational? Is it irrational? A good first step to figuring this out is asking yourself, “What would it mean about me if I wasn’t successful?” Do you believe your value it tied up in what you do vs. who you are? Many people have a little of both which is perfectly reasonable. I find the people who struggle the most are the ones who have most or all of their value tied up in their careers. These have made up the bulk of the “bleary-eyed” people who’ve “stumbled through my door” mentioned above.
You can be successful in your career and have a balanced life – though for many it requires constant re-assessment and slight shift in priorities. If you try all of the above strategies and are still struggling, individual therapy might be a good next step to assist in fleshing out the deeper rooted issues around performance, success and achievement – and how they might relate to your perceived worth as a human being.